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Centerville grad who died in Afghanistan remembered for service

Nathan Ross Chapman was first American serviceman to die from enemy fire in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 attacks.

Sgt. 1st Class Nathan Ross Chapman was the first U.S. soldier killed by enemy fire during the “war on terrorism,” but if it were not for his actions, a CIA agent may have also become one of the first Americans to die in combat during the military campaign.

Chapman, 31, a 1988 graduate of Centerville High School, bled to death on Jan. 4, 2002, after he was struck by a bullet during an ambush in Khost, Afghanistan, near the Pakistan border.

A CIA agent who was traveling with Chapman was injured in the attack, but survived. The agent later told Chapman’s parents that their son likely saved his life and the life of other members of his group.

“Nathan, even though he had been hit and wounded, continued to return fire until he passed out from a loss of blood,” said his father, Will Chapman. “(The agent’s) view was that if Nathan had not continued to return fire, none of them would have gotten out of there.”

History will remember Chapman as the first American serviceman to die from enemy fire in Afghanistan.

But friends, family members and peers continue to remember him as a devoted father, husband and a man with a brave and noble soul who could not stand by and watch as his country sought payback for the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11.

As the country commemorates the 10th anniversary of the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, people who knew Chapman will reflect back on his life and the enormous sacrifice he made for the country he loved and vowed to protect.

“He was a very dedicated warrior,” said his mother, Lynn Chapman. “He was motivated and proud and he was also a well-rounded person.”

Chapman, who was born at the Andrews Air Force Base in Washington, D.C., moved with his family to Centerville when he was a freshman in high school. He attended Centerville High School all four years and joined the Army during his senior year.

Chapman, a talented wrestler in high school, had no desire to attend college, and his father said he believed his son joined the Army to develop life and job skills that could help him with a future career.

Adventure-seeker

But Will Chapman, who lives in Georgetown, Texas, said he soon realized his son’s career ambitions were connected to the military. His son was always an adventure-seeker, and Chapman found he excelled in the military.

Chapman trained at Ft. Lewis, Wash., and then parachuted into Panama during the U.S. invasion and served in the Persian Gulf War. Chapman, who eventually became a member of the Army’s Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, met his wife, Renae, in Washington state, and they had two children, Amanda and Brandon. Family members said that for a man with such a dangerous job, Chapman had a sensitive side and cherished being a father.

Chapman formed also a special bond with the other members of his unit, which he called his “second family,” according to family members. Like him, they believed in their country and shared the same drive to be on the frontlines of any military operations.

“It was something he really enjoyed and loved,” Lynn Chapman said. “In the military, there is a real sense of purpose.”

After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Chapman volunteered for an assignment in Afghanistan. His talents as a communications specialist made him a valuable asset to the military, officials later said.

Will Chapman said his son truly believed the often uttered, but not always spoken sincerely idea that “freedom isn’t free.” Chapman, who knew full well the risk of war from previous combat experience, was willing to risk it all for the sake of serving his country.

“His attitude was: If this country was going to go over there and get these people who did this to our country, they were not going to go without him,” Will Chapman said. “His reaction (to 9/11) was not more or less than anyone else’s, but the difference was he was in a position to do something about it.”

In the special forces, Chapman participated in secret missions, the details of which he was unable to share with his family.

The last time Chapman’s parents spoke with their son was via a satellite telephone connection on Christmas day, 2001. Chapman did not say his location, but family members figured based on his comments that he was in Afghanistan.

During this last conversation, Chapman said he missed his family, but he never seemed homesick while he was with his team.

“We said, ‘We’re sorry you are so far away from home for Christmas,’ and he said he felt bad about that, but he was with his other family,” his mother said.

Ten days later, the family received the news that Chapman was killed after a bullet severed one of his arteries. He and other special forces members were meeting with tribal leaders, but they were ambushed.

The family always knew Chapman was brave and determined, but the CIA agent’s account of his death confirmed that he died a hero — firing away at the enemy until the very end.

Nearly 10 years later, his family continues to struggle with the loss of that hero. There have been 1,648 U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan, and whenever Will Chapman hears news about another casualty, he inevitably thinks of his son. Family members said not a day goes by without Chapman entering their thoughts.

A lasting legacy

Chapman was memorialized more than most soldiers because he was the first to die in combat. Trails in Washington state bear his name, an operating base in Afghanistan was named after him and the town of Georgetown erected a statute of him to honor his sacrifice.

But family members said it does not matter if a soldier is the first to die or the 1,000th – the death tears a gaping hole in the lives of the loved ones he or she leaves behind. The cost of war is terrible, and “the order does not make any difference,” Lynn Chapman said.

Will Chapman said he misses his son dearly, and it is tragic that the “war on terrorism” has resulted in so many American casualties. But he said America had to react after 9/11, because the country was in real danger.

“We did not start this, they did,” he said.